Higher Education: Coming and Going


“Many—perhaps most—books on the American university fall into two categories. Jeremiads seem to pop off the presses every week. A fair number of them conform to a single type, one that embraces books as varied in their origins as The Faculty Lounges (2011), a blast at professors written by a distinguished journalist, Naomi Schaefer Riley, and The Fall of the Faculty (2011), an attack on administrators written by a distinguished political scientist, Benjamin Ginsberg. Instead of examining these complex communities from multiple points of view, they single out one group of actors as villains. Instead of offering detailed accounts of particular colleges and universities, which could give a sense of the rhythms and textures of academic lives, they pile up stories clipped from popular media and Web pages; describe individual experiences, often egregious ones, as if they marked a general rule; and recycle anecdotes already worn smooth by the handling they have undergone in previous polemical works.”

The New York Review of Books evaluates the two perspectives on higher education in America most commonly found in books. The article, titled “Our Universities: Why Are They Failing?,” criticizes the lack of true perspective, concluding with the question, “Where are the great journalists?” Focus is primarily on numbers, painting a dismal portrait of both the education as well as the students. Who is at fault? What is going on?

Perhaps, offering some clarity, as well as providing contrast, recent events have brought both student protesters and professors to light.

Last week, we posted UCI Professor Rei Terada’s analysis of UC Berkeley Chancellor Birgeneau’s email response (we also pasted the email in full). It is important to note the lack of mainstream media coverage on Occupy events, which has revealed that its been a long-time since protesting has been taken seriously. However, smaller and newly-formed media outlets (some being personal blogs) have kept the movement alive.

For instance, Terada has also contributed to the “Remaking the University” blog, whose subtitle is “Res Ipsa Loquitor” — Latin for “the thing speaks for itself,” posting about the UCI protests. Depicting both the harsh realities and the student struggle (in which students are actively protesting), education appears to be floundering as a result of monetary gain. The website’s most recent article features UC Berkeley tenured Professor Celeste Langan, who wrote about “Why I Got Arrested with Occupy Cal–And How.”  The following is an excerpt from Langan’s article:

“I note the same narrowly pragmatic thinking in the haste with which the police acted and Chancellor Birgeneau’s justification for his decision to authorize the police action: “We simply cannot afford to spend our precious resources and, in particular, student tuition, on costly and avoidable expenses associated with violence or vandalism.” No one wishes to “waste” resources in this climate. Yet if one follows this logic one can see the looming threat: lawful assembly, peaceful dissent, and free inquiry—even so-called “breadth requirements”–can all entail some cost. They interfere with “getting and spending.” Dissent, like free inquiry, is sometimes inefficient. Dissent doesn’t always have a “deliverable.” But it takes time to determine a just answer to “What is to be done?’.”

This excerpt further portrays the perception of protesting as something to be cast aside, something that will die. In this video, you can see Langan (in pink) standing in front of students, and getting her hair pulled and getting thrown to the ground.  Further reports indicate that Professor Geoffrey O’Brien’s ribs were broken later that night, and 70 year old former Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Hass was jabbed several times in the stomach as well. The active participation of both students and faculty is something to be admired. This begs the question, what do we look to next? Is it leadership?

Earlier this year, PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel remarked that the new bubble is higher education (which we had linked to). Still, if we were to put Thiel’s beliefs in the larger picture, we must ask, what does the dismissal of higher education condone?

Maria Chiang is a usually a fun person. More from this author →